I can still see Johnny walking in the door with that half-smile on his lips. Is it wrong if I like to picture it every now and then? He’s late, he’s always late, but everyone cheers because he’s finally made it, and now we’re complete. Who does he think he is? I say it every time, say it to whoever’s around, but I cheer anyway because it’s so damn hard to stay mad at him. Johnny keeps his jacket on, keeps it wrapped tight around him as he hugs us one-by-one. We’d recognize that jacket anywhere because it’s all he ever wears. Maybe he’s got another at home, but we wouldn’t know. He’s up ordering a shot and a beer and we’re making room at the table. It’s been a good night already, and now here it is breaking open right in front of us, because now Johnny’s here.
Is it wrong that it makes me smile, now? Knowing what I know? But on this night, this night that is so many nights, strung together with strands of tinsel and colored Christmas bulbs, we don’t know yet. We don’t know he’s been lying to us, about the booze and the pills and everything else, and we won’t for another six months. Tonight all we know is the door’s opening and here’s Johnny coming in from the snow, so tonight I’m smiling.
The beer comes in cans here, the mixed drinks in little plastic cups. We buy tall Naragansetts with $5 bills, leave the tip on the sticky bar top. The band is good tonight, like really good, and everybody knows it. Girls hold the bathroom door for each other, and everyone dances here. No one ever goes downstairs because the band’s always good. Good enough it’s worth the cover, worth getting cash back at the drugstore to pay for drinks.
Our parents laugh at us for coming here. They say not much has changed since it was them coming here. The owner’s dead but they’ve kept most everything else the same. Some of the old crowd is still around. They show up early, are the first ones on the dance floor. They really know how to dance. We don’t but we try anyway, really give it our all.
Even Haley dances a little, in her uniform of black, all black, except the glass of white wine in her hand, the only real glass in the whole place. She’s so careful that she never spills it. She doesn’t take her hair down, doesn’t leave her phone on the table, but she takes up just a little more space here, lets herself grow a little taller and wider, dancing in the back with her bag secure across her chest.
When the first set’s over the young singer tells us he’s new to town, how he moved here for a guy and thought he’d give school another try. Tells us to find him on Facebook. Spells his name and makes us promise.
Were we so naive, thinking things might stay the same for us? We must have known they wouldn’t. Why else did I feel the need to take a picture every time?
Maybe it’s for the best, the news that they’re closing. We hardly ever go there now that it’s only a few of us left in town. It’s not the kind of place for old friends to catch up when they’re passing through, for couples to meet for drinks and Uber home before ten. I’m always making plans to drink, saying I’d like to get rip-roaring drunk one of these nights for a change, but by the time we make it to the bar it’s just too much work.
We’re drinking more seltzer these days, less beer. Spending more time in the dirt out back, trying to grow things. Johnny’s not the only one.
But in our group chat it feels like someone’s dead. We don’t text so much these days, now that we’re grown up and graduated. We get the news the same week they put something in the paper about how our school won’t survive the recession, won’t make it through this time.
Dad used to live down the street in a place with five or six other Arabs, back when they were coming over like a fever, filling up the university seats and the rent-controlled apartments. He washed dishes right there at Arabian Nights, when it was just one restaurant that had Arabic music on weekends. Not like it is now, taking up half the block like this. But the food sucks, tastes nothing like home anymore, and I guess everyone found out the owner’s a real creep. He’s not so bad, Dad tells us, but Mom says he’s been like that forever. She’s not even a little surprised.
Eventually they got their own restaurant across the street beneath the Indian place. I can’t remember what it looked like inside. I was small then and can only remember darkness, the feeling that it was too dark in there, how my sister and I couldn’t wait to burst through the metal side door to race up and down the alley a hundred or a million times. The tunnel, we called it. We’d never seen anything so beautiful as the light reflecting off the colored panes above us, or the faces in the parking lot mural out back, our own Mount Rushmore in a thousand laughing hues. That part, the color and light, is burned into me someplace, still vivid and bright.
Dad had a little cash and most of his fingers left when the restaurant closed, and he started driving a cab at night. He said if he could make enough money he’d be able to get his own medallion, which meant he’d be rich and wouldn’t have to work for somebody else. In my mind the medallion was a shining gold coin he’d wear on a ribbon around his neck while we drove around the city in full daylight, anytime we wanted because the schedule was up to us.
The cabbies are mostly gone now, the cars on the street mostly black and gray. No mustard Crown Victorias braiding the avenue, their rooftop signs like fins as they paint infinite loops around the block, lit-up to announce: Here I am. I’m here, I’m here, I’m here. Dad never got his medallion. These days we walk past fast-casual eateries with their names printed in the same muted colors, pass the same banks and the same cocktail bars with the patios in the back. We keep saying we’ll check them out one of these days, but we never do.
I need to call Johnny. It’s been on my list, to call Johnny and ask him to come over. We’ll sit outside in the back, listen to the crickets in the garden and the city buses out front. I strung up some lights, dragged a few chairs up from the basement, even took my time wiping off the cobwebs and bird shit. It doesn’t look half bad. Mom always said the white lights should go on the front of the house because they look classy from the main road, but the colorful ones, the ones that blink and flash, glittering sparks of blue and pink and green, can go anywhere because they’re just for you. It’s not Christmas or anything, but we’ve had them on every night, and if Johnny can make it up here this weekend we’ll be waiting for him out back, watching for his boots on the pavement and his face coming into focus under the lights.
Alia Georges is a writer based in Boston, MA.